PROVIDENCE — A new documentary, “Being Thunder,” tells the story of Sherenté Harris, a “two-spirit” member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe in Rhode Island who is now studying at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design.
On the Rhode Island Report podcast, Harris explained that “two spirit” is an umbrella term for indigenous people who are LGBTQ+.
“Across Turtle Island, what we now call America, indigenous people accepted and often honored their LGBT people in their community,” Harris said. “All of those ways of understanding LGBT people is unique to different tribes. But the word ‘two spirit’ allows us to express how our identity, our sexuality, our gender expression is inextricable from our traditions, our roles within ceremony, and in our communities.”
The film, directed by French filmmaker Stéphanie Lamorré, shows Harris participating in traditional dance competitions at powwows in the area.
“Being that I was biologically sexed male at birth, I began dancing as an Eastern War dancer, which was the traditional style of my father,” Harris explained. “When I came out as two spirit, I realized that I would not be truly giving thanks for all that I am if I hid this part of myself. And so by sharing this with my tribal community through dance, I decided to become a fancy shawl dancer, which was the traditional style of dance my mother practiced.”
The documentary shows some of the pushback Harris received.
“For years, I was basically not allowed to compete in the dance circle,” Harris said. “The first time that I went out to dance right before my competition, I was told that I would have to take off my number and that I would not be able to dance with the girls.”
Harris, who accepts all pronouns but wanted to use “she” for this purpose, said she received support from others in the competition. “It was actually a small group of people that mostly consisted of older men that had an issue with me dancing,” she said. “Even though I was told that I could not compete, I still went out and danced anyways.”
Harris said her parents and grandparents recounted “horror stories” about “two spirit” people being humiliated and told to leave dance competitions in years past. While that didn’t happen to her, she said judges were secretly told to disregard her as part of the competition, but that sparked a “tremendous protest.”
“In the end, it was decided that I would be treated like everyone else,” Harris said.
As her story has become more widely known in indigenous communities, Harris said people from across the country and other parts of the world have begun to reach out to her. “Young people that somehow have heard of my story — what I’ve gone through but also the change I’ve been able to make — it has inspired them to be themselves,” she said.
Throughout it all, Harris said she has received unwavering support from her parents, Thawn Harris and Eleanor Dove Harris.
“It is so important that the parents of young two-spirit people, the parents of young LGBT people, realize how important it is, above all, to love your children,” Harris said. “Just love your children, and it will allow them to blossom and grow.”
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